Travel is perhaps the best teacher in the world – especially if you are curious about history and how the world changed and morphed into the beautifully ugly crazy rabid zone – where every identity has a religious, ethnic, racial sub-story. At some point of history or other, there has been persecution, pogroms, subjugation and conquests that have radically changed the way our world is today.
An epoch that changed Europe, an unhealed scar that raises its ugly head time and again, one that reverberates across the continent even seventy years later – The Holocaust. While a trip through cities and regions that have World War II tour (of cities and places that are part of the turning points in the War) is still in the works, we keep stumbling on the dark side of modern European history in several cities of Europe.
Walk by the banks of the Danube river along the Pest side and you’ll come across shoes by the bank. From afar it look like several people just took off their shoes to take a swim. But from up close, you realise they are metallic – stark and cold. We stumbled on it by sunset of our first day there. Perhaps it was the setting sun playing tricks, but that sinking feeling of melancholy – that sense of ‘I don’t know the story, but I know it will haunt me for long when I do’. The moment we were in a cafe with wifi, I wanted to know the story behind those pairs of metallic shoes by the Danube. Before the Second World War began, 25% of Hungary’s population was made up of Jews. During the War, the Arrow Cross Party that had Nazi affiliations murdered around 600,000 of them. Nearly 19% of the Jewish population wiped out during this time were Hungarians.
Standing by the Danube on a summery August day, I wonder how it must have been – the Second World War still raging on – Its 1944-45, the notorious Arrow Cross Party is in power in Hungary – their militiamen and secret police continue to comb through the city for Jews. When they round them up, men, women and children alike, many are brought to this Danube river bank, asked to take off their shoes and shot point blank by the edge of the bank so that topple over lifeless into the swiftly flowing river. Each shoe reflects a personality – there are 60 of them- pointy, buckled shoes of women, sensible work shoes worn by men, little shoes of a baby girl and another of a boy – several that remind you of the number of lives lost here because across Europe being Jew was reason enough for a warrant of death. The shoes, a memorial by Hungarian artists – Gyula Pauer and Can Togay, that make you stand and reflect how lucky you are to be free – and alive.
Across Budapest, there are reminders of the city’s Jewish past – so while you are in the city, explore it – walk through the Jewish quarters, even if history does not interest you much, this is an area where you can find really good food and drinks at what you may call as good-value-for-the-buck. Try eating by the touristy Pest bank – the glittery, touristy paths are choc-a-bloc with restaurants, but the prices may scald your mouth before you begin eating your meal, especially if you were hoping to make your Hungarian Forints stretch as much as you can!
There are several ways to see Budapest – opt for a walking tour, a bicycle tour or a fully guided one. We chose the Free Walking Tours – a great way to see the city on foot with locals. You meet at a popular touristy spot at a pre-destined time, walk with the locals through lanes they have seen all their lives, hear their stories, share a drink, a laugh and a question and then at the end of the tour – pay them what you think their time and tour was worth. It isn’t mandatory but just good manners – they have spared their time to show you around, tip them to show your gratitude. Simple! While in other cities like Prague and Bratislava we did city tours, in Budapest, we crammed all the tours we could into the four days we spent there. So apart from the city tour, we also did the tour of the city’s Jewish heritage and also a look at how the Hungary behind the Iron Curtain fared during the heady days of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe.
Jews trace their lineage in Hungary to about 1000 AD, when King Stephen, the first Magyar King allowed them to form a rich, affluent middle class. Through the time of the Ottoman empire in the 16th cy, Jews prospered. It was when they were overthrown by the Habsburg empire. When the recatholisation of the city began, the Jews and others had to move out. The Habsburgs did not persecute the minorities. They carved a settlement for themselves in the heart of Pest – accommodations, warehouses, cafes and restaurants. A walk along the Andrassy Avenue leads you to the Jewish Quarter, that still largely stretches over the ghettos the population was confined to in the 40s. In the post World War I times, Anti-Semitic sentiment began to take route across the region. A law passed during that time restricted the opportunities for education for minorities like the Jews. Several gifted students were literally chased away by the draconian Hungarian education system. I loved a bit of trivia that Anna, our guide shared with us – apparently 13-14 Nobel Peace Prize winners were Hungarians, who had emigrated out of the country due to the oppressive system that offered them little to no encouragement.
The Jewish Quarter in Budapest is sort of bracketed by beautiful synagogues. Each one unique in its architecture and history. But the one I was most interested in was the Tobacco synagogue (so named because it is on Dohany Street which roughly translates to Tobacco Street). It is said to be the second largest synagogue in the world, ironically designed by a German architech, who wasn’t a Jew! They say this synangogue was built in just five years! During World War II, in 1944, Germany occupied Hungary and the Nazi party took over the reins. The Jewish population here began to be transported to concentration camps like Auschwitz. Hungary was literally the last post for the German forces that were clearly losing the war. The Tobacco synagogue became the Gestapo headquarters, perhaps the reason why damage to this beautiful building was minimal.
By the time the Soviet Army liberated Hungary in early 1945, thousands of Hungarian Jews had perished mostly due to starvation, disease and bitter cold. Soviet soldiers dug mass graves to bury the dead, unaware of Jewish customs that once buried, the bodies of the dead can’t be exhumed. And more importantly, cemetaries are never within the premises of the synagogue! That’s the reason why in one corner of the Tobacco synagogue, you’ll stumble upon grave stones of people who perished during the War. Pause by the Tree of Life and the Holocaust memorial – say a silent prayer for those that perished – writers, interllectuals, businessmen, ordinary men, women and innocent children. All perished because their own countrymen were taught to hate their identity. Time for another trivia – apart from this synagogue, Krakow and Delhi are the only two other cities where you’d find graves within the synagogue complex.
The settlements where prosperous Jews once lived are now crumbling residential complexes, slowly going to seed due to squalor and poverty. The communist rule that followed World War II further pushed Hungary into a time warp, the glorious avenues and homes of the rich are now crumbling edifices, several synagogues fell into disuse and the houses in which Jews were interned or hid in still bear the scars of the hellholes they proved to be. But there were heroes too. A Swiss diplomat with the Swedish embassy, Carl Lutz saved a lot of lived by creating safe havens across northern Pest.
A portion of the wall that demarcated the Jewish Ghetto still stands. Its a stark homage that when Jews come here to pay respect to their family members and ancestors who had perished within the confines of the walled ghetto, they bring stones, not flowers. After the walking tour, we landed at a posh pub – one of the hippest in the city, we are informed. It’s a converted warehouse that speaks of a modern Budapest, a young hipper, livelier Budapest that’s struggling to leave its dark past of Holocaust and communist era behind. But the stories that the stones have to narrate – those are the ones that you mull over as you sip a beer and exchange notes with others you met on the tour!
The Memorial For Carl Lutz